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Implicating the audience in exile

Donna Brett

Donna Brett is an arts writer and rights manager at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She is currently completing a Masters thesis at the University of Sydney entitled The violent Other: Third space in the work of Hatoum and Salcedo.

Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence (1992) Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London) Mona Hatoum, Light Sentence (1992) Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Mona Hatoum responded to the conflict with a performance piece entitled The negotiating table. As in many early works, Hatoum used her body to explore universal notions of violence, oppression, confinement and displacement. She lay curled on a table for several hours, blindfolded and enclosed in a body bag covered with entrails, blood and bandages. The table, illuminated by a single bulb, was flanked by 2 empty chairs; the silence of the interrogation room jarringly punctuated by news reports of the war and leaders in peace negotiations.

Born in Beirut of exiled Palestinian parents, Hatoum has long been familiar with political unrest and environments in which cultural acceptance is uneasy at best. She found herself further displaced when civil war broke out in Beirut while she was on a short visit to London in 1975. Unable to return to her adopted home, Hatoum used the British citizenship claimed by her parents in Lebanon in 1948, and has since lived in London. Here, in a state of double exile, she commenced the exploration of cultural and physical dislocation with performance, video and installation while studying at the Byam Shaw and Slade art schools.

At the core of Hatoum’s performance and installation work is the experience and corporeal investigation of the ‘exiled’ as physically, culturally or emotionally displaced. Hatoum comments that the exiled ‘other’ exists in a space removed from their own skin, dislocated from their own culture. Her work implicates the spectator in this disrupted position of spatial discord, displacing the viewer’s preconceptions. Several performance works have focused on situations in which the body is confined and challenged: in Under siege (1982) Hatoum struggled for 7 hours to stand in a glass container full of wet and sticky clay, while Suspended (1986) saw her confined in a chicken coop at the Laing Gallery.

Early performance and video works used the effect of surveillance and audience participation to create scenarios in which the spectator alternately becomes the watcher and the watched. The voyeuristic nature of these performances continuously puts the audience in a state of unease and disturbance. In works that she has called "endurance performance", Hatoum uses video as a third eye, collapsing the power usually afforded the voyeur. In Matters of gravity (1987) she was enclosed in a cell and could only be viewed through a spy hole that used a camera obscura lens to project her upside down. This affected complete visual disorientation for the viewer as Hatoum moved around the space and created a converse sense of place.

For the exiled the measure of distance is always in relation to their origin; what remains there and what is lost. In 1988 Hatoum explored the painful reality of distance in a video work entitled Measures of distance. During a visit to Lebanon in 1981 she recorded conversations with, and footage of, her mother. She layered the imagery of her naked mother in the shower with letters sent to the artist in Arabic, while Hatoum read the words aloud in English. This was further interwoven with segments of their conversations. The result is a narrative of Hatoum’s life as an exile that attempts to recall the intimacy of a relationship, memories faded by time and distance, and failed attempts to recapture the physicality of a kiss or the touch of a body.

In changing from performance and video work to installation and sculpture, the focus on Hatoum’s body as the vehicle for a political message shifted to an emphasis on the absence of the body: "Originally when I did performance, I used the body–my body–as a metaphor for social systems. Now I’m trying to set up situations where the viewer has a direct physical experience with the installation and becomes completely implicated by it." (Anastasia Aukeman, ‘The body politic’, World Art 3, 1995). The viewer becomes the surrogate body caught in an in-between space, engaged in an exchange between the centre and the periphery, object and subject.

For Hatoum, space is fundamentally about its relation to the body. As an exile, her cultural space has always been discontinuous, at a point of disjuncture–neither here nor there. Her work has been about negotiating a position for the body within a state of simultaneous presence and absence, a body in conflict with extreme physical and spatial disruption. Light sentence (1992) forms a space which constantly changes as a light moves up and down, casting shifting shadows from steel lockers onto the surfaces of a room.

Corps étranger (Foreign body) (1994) represented a return to the body with the artist’s internal organs–respiratory tract, digestive system and intestines–projected onto the floor of a small cylindrical space. Upon entering, the viewer becomes trapped between the edge of the cylinder and the projected corporeal void. An edge or barrier is often used in Mona Hatoum’s work to define a space of separation, representing the "impossibility of communication across the social, political, race, class and gender divides" (interview with Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, MCA Press Kit, 2005).

The human endeavour to locate a place on this planet is explored in a piece inspired by Manzoni’s work of the same title, Socle du monde (Pedestal for the earth) (1992-93). A large cube comprising magnets with opposing poles creates conflicting orientations for iron filings drawn into a writhing and wriggling mass on the surface. Each iron filing battles for its own space, pushing and pulling to form patterns resembling entrails.

Hatoum chooses materials that create contradictory expectations and turns "the object into something dangerous or something that is unable to fulfil its function" (Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, 2005). These contradictions inform her swings made of glass, placed precariously close and facing each other, indicating potential collision; or her wheelchair that not only has sharp knives in place of its handles but also threatens to tip its occupant onto the floor. Many of the works from the late 90s are installations or sculptures that include domestic objects set apart from their familiar surroundings. Sculptures such as Mouli-julienne x 17 (1999), Grater divide (2002) or Cage-à-deux (2002) bring everyday objects such as a vegetable cutter, grater or birdcage into a sphere of danger, confinement and torture, with their extreme scale adding to the uncanniness of the work.

The domestic nature of much of Hatoum’s work undermines our initial reaction of familiarity and safety, as we recognise that what appears to be safe is in fact dangerous, sharp or foreign. For the exiled, this situation is understood, felt and breathed. For Hatoum it is a daily reality expressed in her work as a metaphor for the politics of location and dislocation.

Mona Hatoum: Over my dead body, selected and curated by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor from the Hamburger Kunsthalle solo exhibition, 2004; MCA, Sydney, March 23-May 29

Donna Brett is an arts writer and rights manager at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She is currently completing a Masters thesis at the University of Sydney entitled The violent Other: Third space in the work of Hatoum and Salcedo.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 10

© Donna Brett; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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